I’m always fascinated at the harmony of fiddle tunes. No matter how long I’ve been playing a tune, I still can discover something new about its harmony. As an accompanist, I’m very concerned with following the melody as closely as I can. Tune melodies are based on arpeggios with some passing tones in between. Sometimes parts of the melodies can be ambiguous in terms of the chords implied, but for the most part, the melody is blatantly telling us what chord to use. For this reason, it is very important for accompanists to know the melodies of the tunes as well as what notes are contained in chords.
What I commonly listen for is a choice between the ii and the IV chord in a major key. In the key of A major, the ii chord is B minor (B D F#). The IV chord is D major (D F# A). The ii and the IV chords are easily interchangeable since they share two of the same notes, D and F#. So in many melodic contexts, both chords can work, but sometimes there is a better choice.
Let’s look at the choice between these two chords in first bar of the common jig, Irishman’s Heart to the ladies:
In the second half of the bar we have the notes B A and F#. The D major chord can work in this context- it contains two of the notes in this phrase, A and F#. However, B minor can be heard as more closely following the melody: It contains the root of the chord (B) and the A can be interpreted as an extension of the chord- the minor 7th (a B minor 7th chord contains the notes of B D F# and A). But again, both chords can work and sometimes this boils down to individual preference.
Sometimes instead of following the melody in this way, our ears pull us towards typical harmonic progressions. For example in the climatic parts of a tune, or points of cadence, like middle of a part or just before the end of a part , our ears expect to hear that strong resolution from V chord to the I chord. Sometimes, though the melody can actually spell out a IV chord. For example, in the Irish jig Willie Coleman, we have the following melody in the first part of the B section:
How do we interpret that E at the end of the 4th bar? We usually expect to hear a V chord at the cadence point. Sometimes I hear accompanists play a D chord, sometimes I hear accompanists play an A minor chord to a D chord. This is a typical chord progression known as a ii V. It’s easy to follow that progression since it is so common and so strong. However, if you look at the notes just before the E, you’ll see that they spell a G major chord-G B and D, not A minor. And in terms of the E itself, in my opinion, it suits a C major chord more rather than a D major chord. The note E is not found in the D major chord but it is a chord tone of C major.
So the next time you are wondering what the chords of a tune are, always look at the melody. It never lies!
In the next little bit, I’ll be writing a series of posts about Cape breton fiddlers you may or may not have heard of that I feel were influential in the evolution of the Cape Breton fiddle style. To begin, I’ll start with the late Winston ‘Scotty’ Fitzgerald.
I don’t think there is a single Cape Breton fiddle player who has not been influenced by Winston Fitzgerald, directly or indirectly. His crisp and articulate style was inspirational to the generations that followed him. So many Cape Breton fiddlers talk about trying to emulate his style. In addition to his style, the tunes he introduced into the repertoire have become classics in Cape Breton. McNabb’s Hornpipe (aka, Crossing the Minch) and the Farmer’s Daughter easily come to mind. That ‘classic cut’ is still heard on the radio today over 50 years after it was recorded. It’s difficult to not play the Farmer’s Daughter after McNabb’s hornpipe since the pairing is such a classic. And that is just one small example of the strong influence his playing, repertoire and recordings have had on the Cape Breton fiddle style.
Winston born in 1914 in White Point, in the northern part of Cape Breton. He came from a very musical family of fiddlers, singers and step dancers. At age 18, he toured Nova Scotia with a road show called “The Maritime Merrymakers”. He was heard regularly on the radio with his group the “Radio Entertainers” and he also played to a national television audience on the “John Allan Cameron Show” as one of the members of the Cape Breton Symphony.
While being strongly rooted in Cape Breton music, he had experience and interest in other styles. At about the age of 20, he toured and did radio shows as a member of Hank Snow’s band. He took a two and a half year correspondence course with the US School of Music. According to Paul Cranford, Winston ‘felt that this training gave him good instruction in bowing and got him started on position work”. If the opportunity had presented itself, he would have taken classical violin lessons. He also greatly admired the playing of the Scottish fiddler, Hector MacAndrew.
He was well known for constantly perfecting his tunes and crafting them into his own. His versions of tunes have now become classic. In his own words-
“After I got to learn music I had good tunes out of books-you know. Gow and O’Neill’s and Fraser’s and all those good collections. The Gow’s – they’d steal tunes and add variations so I figured if they can do it and get away with it, so can I. I might add a couple of grace notes or a little bit of bow work or some little thing that would add to it. It doesn’t take much to put a change in it for the better or for the worse.” (excerpt from an interview with Ron Caplan, Cape Breton Magazine issue 46)
So much can be said about such a pivotal and influential player, but his playing speaks for itself. A great introduction to his music is the compilation album, “Classic Cuts” and a tune book of his repertoire, “Winston Fitzgerald: A Collection of Fiddle Tunes”, both available on cranfordpub.com